“Back” to home

One of two 17″ Smelt caught today

I have not been out to the Ventura Pier, my home base, for three weeks due to a vacation at the Grand Canyon, fishing with my son in Santa Barbara, CA, a big slow down in the fishing action at my home base, and a chronic back issue that flared up the last time I was there.

My back, which I injured on the job about seven years ago, is still bothering me but I can do most things if I can deal with the aches and pains. When I go the the Ventura Pier to fish, there is a long walk involved and I have to carry all of my equipment so I have been staying away until I felt I could make the trek. Today I felt pretty good so I went out to see what was going on.

There were only a few fishermen to be seen, so I didn’t expect much action but to my surprise, after I cast my ocean bottom line (my Wishing Pole) out and then cast my over the side line (my Fishing Pole) I started getting hits on both almost immediately. I had not been fishing for more than 15 minutes when I caught the biggest Smelt that I have ever seen. It measured 17 inches in length and must have weighed around 3 pounds. Then I caught 4 medium sized Mackerel in the next 30 minutes. By that time, I knew why the fishing was so good: there was a huge school of Anchovies under the pier. Having a school of Anchovies swimming around can be good, bad, or both for a fisherman. Today, it was both.

It can be good because big fish follow them around looking for a meal and as witnessed by the big Smelt pictured above, these fish tend to be bigger than what you would normally catch because they most likely followed the school from a greater depth of the ocean. It can be bad, though, because these same fish tend to ignore your dead bait, preferring to have a live, fresh, meal instead. Still, it can be both if you get a fish who just wants to eat something, dead or alive, so they go after your bait. If there are enough of these kinds of fish around, you can be very busy for some time. Today, I stayed busy for about an hour, then the school moved on and the action died out. In the meantime, my bottom line was getting a lot of attention though all I managed to haul in was a #$*#$ bait stealer which was the biggest one of them that I have ever caught. These guys tend to be about 4 or 5 inches in length but because of their large mouths, can still swallow a chunk of bait that is almost as big as they are. The one I reeled in today, though, was nearly 8 inches in length.

I was ready to go in early after a few more hours, when I caught my second 17 inch Smelt. There was a large school class outing walking by as I was fighting the fish who hit on my ultra light rig, so after I landed it, I had the opportunity to tell the kids about the fish, the Anchovies, and how the birds that were hanging around can tell you when the fishing is going to be good.

Their teacher appreciated the time I took to talk to the kids.

One other thing about today’s outing that was unusual is that I caught all of my fish on the west side of the pier, a side I rarely fish on due to the normally prevailing winds, but with my back aching and a still wind, I wanted my back to be facing east so it could be warmed by the rising sun. If it had not been for that, I may have missed the school of Anchovies and all of the fish that I caught.

Fishing Old School…

A month or so past, my 83 year old father in law came to California (from Phoenix, AZ) for a 2-week visit. During that time, he learned all about my fishing ventures and he went with me to the Ventura Pier one day to relax in the cooler Ventura climate while I fished.

It was on that day that he told me that he had some old fishing gear and that I could take all of it the next time I was in Phoenix. At that time, I had not been in that town for over 10 years but my wife and I were planning a visit there before heading to the Grand Canyon, so we arranged a lunch meeting after we picked him up at his place. While we were there, I looked at the gear he had. Then he told me that some of it had belonged to his FATHER.

Half of the lures are made of wood and I have been able to date some back to the 1940’s. The Kalamazoo Tackle Company’s Sportsman Reel, Model E, which was housed in a custom leather case, is nearly new. It may have never been used since there were two other Sportsman reels that definitely have been used; one was attached to the 54″ square STEEL Bristol rod that he also gave me. All of the equipment is for freshwater use, especially the Jitterbug “Bass killer” so I am not sure what I am going to do with this haul. I may go up to my local lake and try out some of the lures even though the fishing is way off in that lake due to drought, fire, and then floods. For sure, I am going to attach the Kalamazoo reel to the Bristol rod and take it out to a pier for a day if nothing else.

That would be real old school fishing at its best.

Touching Home

Prior commitments, some delays in work being done on the homestead, and an appointment to a city advisory group has kept me away from fishing most of the last few weeks but when a day opened up yesterday, I decided to go over to the Ventura Pier, my home base, for a few hours because I know I have another delay coming up. 

Since Labor Day, when the pier was rail to rail fishermen for three days, the fishing has dropped off dramatically at the pier.  I can only speculate that the area has been temporarily fished out.  Unlike Stearns Wharf up Highway 101 in Santa Barbara, CA which extends it full length straight out into the channel between the shore and the Channel Islands (see left photo above),  the Ventura Pier is in a very large bay-like area (see right photo above) and I just feel like this keeps the “restocking” of the area slow whereas there never seems to a shortage of fish around Stearns Wharf.  I have no scientific data to base this on so just call it a fisherman’s hunch, which is often more accurate than science. 

For this trip, I decided to go to the end of the pier and see if anything was happening out there.  It was a quiet day with only five fishermen (or groups of fishermen) when I arrived but the weather was perfect.  For a drift liner like me it could not have been better.  At 7:30 AM, it was already 68 degrees and did not get much warmer by the time I left 3 ½ hours later.  The wind was non-existent, and the ocean was flat and calm. 

So, I had high hopes—which did not totally pan out.  After a few hours, I had caught 5 Mackerel.  Two went into my bait bag, one went to another fisherman, and the other two went back in to grow up.  My ocean bottom line was getting a lot of attention but nothing hooked on to it.  I suspect that the fish who were stealing my bait were too small but it could also have been crabs doing the job. 

Either way, after two hours, I move half way down the pier where I caught the biggest Mackerel of the day, which I kept, and a very fat Perch, which I gave to another fisherman.  And that was it. 

But, I can’t complain, the weather was perfect.

Neither wind, dense fog, churning seas, or screaming maniacs…

Skate Ray – Stearns Wharf

…will stay this fisherman from making his rounds.

And that is what I was up against yesterday when I paid a visit to Stearns Wharf.

I didn’t think I’d be able to get out to the ocean this week because of prior commitments but when a full day suddenly opened up yesterday, I decided to go up to the wharf, which is quickly becoming my favorite fishing venue.  There was a small craft advisory issued for the channel by the national weather service so I knew it would be wet and cold but when I finally arrived at the wharf just before 7 AM, I found a few more factors in play.

The wind was howling, the sea was churning wildly, and a screaming maniac was pacing around in one corner of the wharf apparently having a conversation with the mariner’s warning light which was not on at the time.  The wind and the wild sea is something you learn to deal with if you fish in the ocean but nut cases are not.  This person’s issue seemed to be with the light standard and nothing else but his constant howling was a distraction which I had to check on in case he decided he wanted some REAL trouble with me.  That never happened and as more and more fishermen, joggers, and tourists came around, I stopped paying attention to him since he was not bothering any of them.  I kept expecting the Harbor Patrol or the city police to show up and take the guy somewhere where he could get help but that never happened and after a few hours, I saw him wander away.

As he did, the sun broke through for a while and the fishing which had been slow until then suddenly picked up.  I caught 6 Smelts which was a surprise since I don’t fish for them but these fish were all larger than the usual ones that hang around the wharf.  The same was true about the 9 Mackerel I caught, all of which were over a foot long and all fierce fighters.  I kept 4 of the biggest for bait and released the rest.  Then, I caught something with my ocean bottom. 

It was a large Skate Ray and at 33” in length it was easily one of the biggest I have ever caught.  There were no other fishermen near me when I finally brought the ray to the surface but an Asian lady had come over when she saw me fighting the fish and clapped happily when she finally saw it.  So I asked her if she wanted to help land it.  Despite the language barrier between us, I managed, by pantomiming, to get her to understand my question.  She was thrilled when I handed her the pole and indicated that she needed to hold on tightly.  Then I got out my gaff, lowered it into the ocean, hooked the ray, and brought him onto the pier.  This got another round of clapping and dancing.  As I was unhooking the animal, a young man came over to us; he was the lady’s son who spoke better English than I do.  When I told him was happened he gave his mom a high-five, took some pictures of her and ray, and passed on my thanks for her help.

After that, I moved to the corner of the wharf where the screaming maniac had been holding court with his demons.  The wind had come up again and the ocean continued to churn but I kept catching a fish now and then and all were larger than usual. I began to wonder if the active ocean bottom had anything to do with the presence of these larger fish? I make a note of it if this happens again when I am out.

When it was time to go, I heard someone talking on his cell phone as I packed up.  Looking over at the guy, sitting not 10 feet from me, I saw that he had no phone and no one was near him.  He was talking to the wind.

You sure get a lot of odd balls on Stearns Wharf.

Drift Lining

My time to get out to the pier, the wharf, the shore, and a planned boat excursion, is going to be limited for a while due to prior commitments so I thought I’d explain what I mean when I mentioned in many of my posts that I fish with a drift line.  The concept is simple but actually fishing this way can be a challenge.

As I mentioned in an early blog post, my grandpa always advised me to take a fishing pole and what he called a “wishing pole” with me when I had a chance to do so.  The wishing pole is one that I would weight down, bait up, and cast out to the deepest part of the lake, ocean, or river that I could reach.  Then I’d set my drag so it would alert me when a fish is on the line.  This pole would be used to fish for all the bottom feeding fish that tended to be larger and put up a better fight than fish who do not feed this way.  Submarine size Carp and Catfish are examples of freshwater bottom feeders while Rays and Sharks are examples of saltwater bottom feeders.    

Going after bottom feeders with your wishing pole is simple and easy to do and I think it is the way most people fish even when they use live bait.  However, going after the rest of the fish out there with your fishing pole rigged as a drift line takes more effort than simply setting your drag.  For one thing, you should never set your fishing pole when practicing this method especially when there are hard hitting fish like Mackerel and Bass in the water. 

A drift line is simply a line with no weights or bobber on it.  You can have multiple hooks if you want a greater challenge like catching three Mackerel at a time, which I have done many times.  Your fishing pole should be as light weight as you dare use and the lighter the better, I say, since I like a good fight and I like to give the fish a chance.  I always use my old ultra-light rig when I drift line so there is a 50-50 chance that I will either haul in my catch or it will get away.  Since I only fish for sport, this doesn’t matter to me.   

Whatever you use, it should be easy to cast with only the weight of the bait on it since no lead weights are used in this method.  Using a bobber is close to drift lining but it is not the same since your bait is being held in place in the water, at one level.  Though your line can drift anyway it wants, it cannot drift down which is key element in drift lining.

Drift lining is used to fish for all the rest of the fish out there besides bottom feeders though you can occasionally hook one.  In drift lining, you cast your bait into the water and let it drift where ever it may go.  As it sinks to the bottom, your bait can attract any fish at an water level.  In the ocean, you often have Smelt sitting just below the surface, with Mackerel beneath or mixed in with them.  As your bait drifts lower, it can attract Perch and Bass.  If it hits bottom and you are content to let it sit there for a while, you can pick up a bottom feeder but since you are using light tackle, you have to hope it is not too big.

One day while I was fishing at Stearns Wharf, the Smelt that are usually around had moved off to another area which allowed me to catch 33 Mackerel in a few hours.  One time, my bait made it through the horde of Mackerel that were lurking about and my line drifted closed to the pilings just beneath my feet.  Suddenly, I got a hit that I knew was not that of a Mackerel, it was stronger, but slower and after a pretty fierce battle, I reeled in a nice size Calico Bass.  Until that time, I didn’t know there were bass under the wharf.  So I started fishing for them.  Six more times my bait made it through the school of Mackerel and I ended up with 7 Calico Bass on the day.  A total of 40 fish in about 3 ½ hours.  I was very busy and I owe it all to the drift lining method.

As I said at the start, though, fishing this way can be a real challenge due to the following reasons:

  • First, you have to be aware of where your line is at all times, especially if fishing in a area where others are also fishing since you do not want to cross their lines.  This means paying close attention to what you are doing. 
  • Second, since you should be using the lightest tackle you dare use, you will feel every little nibble and the temptation will be to yank your line up on each one but as I wrote about in a previous blog, grandpa always said that patience is the best bait.  This is what he was referring to.  If you are an experienced fisherman, you most likely know a hit from a nibble but when drift lining, the nibbles can multiply greatly so you have to be patient.  When a real hit occurs you’ll know.  The same is even truer for beginning fisherman and it is something you will learn over time so don’t give up on the method.
  • Third, I always recommend that you keep your pole in your hands at all times when drift lining and you have bait in the water.  The reason is that since you are using light tackle, it would not be that much of a challenge for a good-sized Calico Bass or speeding Mackerel to pull your rig into the water and since you are looking for hits as soon as they happen, you need to be ready to set your hook at any time which you can’t do if you are not holding your pole in your hands.
  • Fourth, since your bait starts at the surface and drifts downward, it will eventually hit bottom where you can leave it if you wish, but since you may have another pole baited for bottom feeders it is a good idea to keep your drift line moving which means a full day of reeling in and casting out.  I like this because it keeps me busy and because I like to have bait in the water at all levels of water as much as possible.
  • Fifth, wind can really affect fishing this way.  When the wind is blowing so hard that you are having trouble keeping your bait in the water, you can add a small weight to compensate for it.  If you choose not to use one, you have to be just that much more vigilant about watching where your line is at any given time.

So, that is the drift lining method.  I have caught thousands of fish this way even when others around me were being shut out.  Though I have told and shown many fishermen this method, I have not seen that many actually use it because of the attention needed to be successful when using this method.

Pier fishing is for the birds

In the 60 years since my grandfather taught me how to fish, I have fished in almost every way that you can fish (the exception being fly fishing). 

I have fished freshwater in boats, on the shore, and from fishing docks.  I have fished saltwater in boats, on the shore, and from piers.  In all of these venues I never encountered the “problems” with birds like you have when pier fishing in whatever ocean you happen to be near.  Freshwater fishing never has a problem with birds and ocean fishing never has a problem with them either unless you are on a “party boat” that is releasing offal to attract fish.  This also attracts Sea Gulls but in that arena, they usually don’t bother the fishermen, they want the offal, not your bait.   

Don’t get me wrong, in most instances I love having seabirds around because if they are out over the water, they tell you that there are fish in the area and where you can find them.  Pelicans are especially good at this which is why I love them.  When people come up and talk to me about fishing while I am on the pier, I often mention the birds and how they can tell you if the day will be a good one or a bad one for fishing.  Most people, especially fishermen, don’t think this way. 

Following is a short list of birdlife I see most often on piers followed by their pluses and minuses.  Keep in mind that I love them all though some can be very pesky and one species can totally ruin a day of fishing.

  • Pelicans – As I said above, I love Pelicans.  They are an unwieldy looking bird whose beaks are almost as long as their bodies yet when in flight they look in perfect symmetry, everything about them is as it should be.  When a flock of them come in flying just above water as they hunt for schools of fish, you wonder how such a ponderous looking creature can fly with such precision.  When they spot their prey and begin striking the water one after another, you have to cheer for them.  You also know exactly where the fish are.
  • Sea Gulls…  – …are always a nuisance.  When they are not trying to steal your catch, they are sneaking up behind you trying to steal your bait.  They don’t have much luck with me because I always keep my bait in sealed containers and I always secure my catch (unless distracted by the landing of a 5-foot Tiger Shark).  Still, you have to watch for them because they are fearless and may try to pull the cover off of your bait (I have seen this happen).  They can really distract you from fishing.  Still, when they are acting like real seabirds, they can hunt for fish like Pelicans do, so they tell you where the fish are located. 
  • Pigeons While not a seabird they are usually the most abundant of feathered friends on piers.  Though they will snatch up an unattended piece of bait, they are not aggressive about it and most of the time they just get underfoot.  The problem with them is they also get under the pier, in flight.  With so many of them around, it is not unusual to see one of them accidentally strike a line.  In an earlier blog post I detail how I “caught” one.
  • Western Jackdaws I am not an ornithologist so I am guessing what this species is.  They look like shrunken crows and I found out that they are related to crows; they can also be as pesky as a Sea Gull.  They are cute little things and you almost want to feed them but feeding wild animals is never a good idea because you don’t want any of them to become dependent on a human provided food supply.  Unlike pigeons who stroll about and get underfoot, these little birds hop all over the pier looking for anything they can steal for a meal.  I usually have a small supply of cut bait ready to go so I can get my line in the water right away after losing a piece of it to nibblers.  I have taken to putting a cloth over these bits of bait just because of these birds.  Unlike Sea Gulls they are so small and quick and there is no way you can monitor your bait to keep them from stealing it.    
  • Cormorants These simply amazing birds “fly” underwater just a easily as they do while in the air.  When they are around, you know there are fish around too.  They can also very easily ruin a day of fishing.  Unlike all the previous birds, you rarely see a Cormorant on the pier, they are birds of the water and that is where they prefer to be.  The problem with them is they not only will try to steal your catch as you are reeling it in, they ALSO will go after your bait and if you use a drift line like I do, that can be a huge problem because the last thing you want to do is catch one of these birds.  What’s more is that you don’t always see them when you cast out even if you are looking for them.  They can be submerged, see your bait hit the water and be after it with astonishing speed.  Last week there were several of them lurking about the pier I was on and no matter what I did, I could not dodge them.  I finally gave up and went in early.    

Memory: Canyon Lake

Canyon Lake, Arizona

As I mentioned in my last Memory posting (Encanto Park) after I found a good job, bought a car, and could afford to travel, I began to fish in many of the lakes around and outside of the Phoenix area. 

Lake Pleasant was one of the newer lakes and the closest to where I lived.  While I caught many nice Striped Bass, Crappie, and Perch in the lake, it was altogether uninspiring as far as looks go.  It is essentially a big man-made puddle of water. 

I also fished in Apache Lake, Roosevelt Lake, and Saguaro Lake which are all nice lakes where you can catch your limit of whatever freshwater fish on any given day, but for pure, awesome beauty, plus fish, you cannot beat Canyon Lake .

Though I cannot swim a stroke (something about the rocks in my head pulling me down), as often as I could afford it, I’d rent a boat at the marina and go out just to explore the lake.  It is called Canyon Lake for a reason; the lake is in a canyon with waterways that branch off in all directions.  Many of these waterways lead to a dead end only accessible by small boats where you can sit in your craft and stare up at the soaring cliffs that tower hundreds of feet above the surface of the lake.  These spurs were usually very isolated, so I’d sometimes forget about fishing and just lay back in my boat and look up at the true magnificence of nature.  It was in these moments that I often wondered if there really was a god who made this place and put me there to observe his/her handiwork.  If so, I hope him/her knows that I was impressed.

During one of these lazy fishing trips, I heard the drag on my new Zebco reel (and rod) fiercely playing out.  Picking it up, I realized that my gear may just be over matched since I could not, at first, turn the fish that had taken my bait.  After 15 minutes or so of a back and forth struggle, the fish started to give in.  When I finally got the beast up to the side of my small skiff, I realized that it was a “Submarine” Carp and I knew that I could not get it in the boat and that I would eventually release it but, still, the massive size of the fish made me want others to see it and to get some idea of how big it was.  So, like Hemingway’s “Old Man And The Sea”, I hooked the fish up to my stringer and slowly, in deference to the Carp, made my way back to the marina. 

When I pulled up to the dock, I told the attendant what was up and that I’d like to weigh and measure the fish.  He took one look at it and agreed heartily.  So, after we tied up, we hauled the fish into the marina where there was a scale.  The Carp weighed 62 pounds and measured 44 inches in length, both statistics this attendant had never seen before. 

When we were finished, we carried the fish out to the dock and released it.  The attendant thought I was crazy, but I kept thinking about my grandpa and what he would do which was the same as I was doing.

Decades later, when I was a frustrated writer, ready to give up on the craft, I wrote a story about this incident called “Just Another Fish Story” which has never been published but did win a Blue Ribbon at the Ventura County Fair.  That ribbon, along with a few more, started me writing again after a decade or so of neglect of my craft.

So, fishing rebooted my desire to write and thus created this blog.

What goes around comes around…